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Stravinsky, Self-Denial, and Self-Renewal

The New York Philharmonic’s three-week Stravinsky festival is in full swing. It offers a singular opportunity to hear no fewer than 16 Stravinsky works conducted by Valery Gergiev – who proposes a much different Stravinsky than, say, Pierre Boulez or Esa-Pekka Salonen: darker, earthier, weightier.
In effect, Gergiev furnishes phase two of a new Stravinsky template, supplanting the image of the cosmopolitan modernist blithely transplanted in Paris and Hollywood. The new Stravinsky is, of course, essentially Russian. In the US, we first came to the Russian Stravinsky via Richard Taruskin and other scholars who unearthed tangled Russian roots of various kinds. Now Russian-trained musicians of Gergiev’s generation – including my friend Lexo Toradze and his touring Toradze Piano Studio, with its numerous Stravinsky marathons – are equally purveying a Stravinsky different from any glimpsed by Robert Craft (except when he accompanied Stravinsky to Leningrad and Moscow in 1962 and observed the composer elated and rejuvenated).
Yesterday I had occasion to host and produce an all-day event for the Philharmonic festival. Using a team of gifted Juilliard pianists, we surveyed Stravinsky’s odyssey chronologically, beginning with the F-sharp minor Sonata he composed under Rimsky’s tutelage, ending with the Sonata for Two Pianos of 1945. That is: we tracked a scenario of self-renewal that was equally a scenario of self-contradiction and self-denial. To further explore the ambiguities at hand, we examined the Piano Sonata (1924) as edited in 1978 by Stravinsky’s son Soulima, who revised his father’s strictures “against interpretation.” And we heard a recording of Mozart’s C minor Fugue made by Igor and Soulima in the 1930s – a finicky act of re-interpretation, of feeling repressed and reprocessed, bordering on the insolent.
Aaron Copland, in a 1943 letter, surmised a “psychology of exile” in Stravinsky characterized by “exquisite perfection” and a “lack of immediacy of contact with the world around him.” Copland added, “I don’t think he’s in a very good period. He copies himself unashamedly and therefore one rarely comes upon a really fresh page – for him, I mean.” But Stravinsky is equally a study in regeneration. (Copland more appreciated Stravinsky’s stylistic departures of the twenties and thirties – but not those of the 1950s. I explore Stravinsky’s psychology of exile in my Artists in Exile [2008].)
As surveyed in performance yesterday, the Stravinsky journey was in fact bewildering in its resourcefulness and complexity. Think of the composers who could not handle the aesthetic upheavals of the early twentieth century. Elgar, Sibelius, Ives, Falla all stopped creating. These cases are distinguishable, but the Great War, puncturing Romantic afflatus, is generally pertinent. Elgar dried up after the 1919 swan song of his Cello Concerto; he died in 1934. Sibelius tried and abandoned a turn to modernism (his Fourth Symphony of 1911); he destroyed whatever he may have composed after 1930: 27 years before he died. Ives – like Elgar, like Sibelius, an embattled apostle of uplift – produced nothing much after 1920; he died in 1954. For Falla, the influence of Stravinsky impelled a neo-classical turn with his important but little-heard Concerto, whose 15 minutes took four years to compose (1923-26) (cf. my Falla blog of March 9). After that came two decades of labor on the unfinishable cantata Atlantida.
Prokofiev had to return to the Soviet Union – which he knew to be a totalitarian police state – in order to replenish his challenged muse. Schoenberg had to undertake a laborious new methodology: serialism. Like Stravinsky’s, his resilience was partly a function of sheer tenacity in the face of cultural and political turmoil.
Gergiev, at yesterday’s Philharmonic event, compared Stravinsky and Prokofiev. He asked: What if, like Prokofiev, Stravinsky had visited the USSR in 1927? He answered: Stravinsky would have discovered a keenness of interest in himself and his music unknown in the West, and greater resources to produce and perform it. Rooted in the St. Petersburg of his youth and young adulthood, in the Mariinsky milieu of his father and of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, he might ultimately have composed massive operas in the Russian tradition (as Prokofiev would compose War and Peace), Gergiev suggested.
In a fascinating reminiscence, Gergiev described his first encounter with Stravinsky’s Symphony Three Movements (1945) some three decades ago, performed by Colin Davis and the London Symphony on tour in Russia. He sensed a darker, more sinewy symphony than Davis purveyed: a war symphony in parallel with the war symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
Fixating on purported programmatic content in Shostakovich, on imagined allusions to Stalin and the Gulag, we lose sight of the notes, Gergiev said. Stravinsky is the opposite case, he continued. We too much take him at his word: that music is powerless to express anything but itself, that (as Stravinsky told the Philharmonic’s Bruno Zirato when asked for a program note for the Symphony in Three Movements): “It is well known that no program is to be sought in my musical output.” (On the undoubted extra-musical resonances of Stravinsky’s World War II symphony, see my blog of March 29.)
I can’t wait to hear Gergiev’s New York Philharmonic performances of the Symphony in Three Movements later this week.


  1. Let us all give thanks that he didn’t compose any massive operas in the Russian tradition. Well, Gergiev’s attempt to infuse Stravinsky with extra-musical baggage has its place, I suppose — none of us is immune from such attempts to frame us in time and place. But I find myself being very sympathetic to Stravinsky’s admonition that there is no program to be sought in his music. Surely he doesn’t claim that one can’t find one–only that one shouldn’t seek it. It’s almost as if he’s including that instruction in each of his scores. So I groan a little to hear mention of his war symphony. Sure one can cast it in that light, but it doesn’t seem to serve his music best.

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